Monday, October 29, 2007

Moses und Aron

I have bought a DVD of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron from the Vienna State Opera, and it is definitely not a chick flick. It reminds me a little of Anna I who sings and Anna II who dances by Kurt Weill. In this case it's Moses, Franz Grundheber, baritone, who talks and brother Aron, Thomas Moser, tenor, who sings. These two are the only real characters. They are set against the chorus and occasional individuals who break out from the crowd of Jews.

They argue over the nature of God who Moses sees as invisible unimaginable, eternal, omnipresent and omnipotent. It is as if Abraham had never existed. This image of God is presented as the invention of Moses who relies on his brother to present his vision to the crowd. The people have turned to the Egyptian vision of God and cannot believe in this abstraction, but when Aron turns the rod into a serpent, they believe.

The main argument is between the two brothers who appear intertwined both together and in opposition. Aron doesn't seem completely convinced.

The production is minimalist black on black. Each individual in the crowd carries a large photograph of himself and the word ICH [German for I] is drawn on the walls. Worshiping idols is the worship of self. It is unrelentingly abstract and modernist.

They agree to flee into the desert, turn their pictures to the floor and erase all the ICHs from the walls. This doesn't last. When Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai, doubt emerges in a whispered singing and talking fugue from the chorus. They complain loudly that without their old gods there is no law and order.

Aron relents and agrees to give them back their old gods by putting up a giant word ICH. They put on gold outfits and go back to worshiping themselves. Some men commit suicide. Moses comes back with the ten commandments and is pissed.

I'm not high minded enough to like this. The pagans seem to be having more fun, but even they are pretty boring. Remind me--why exactly is it that people like Schoenberg? I rather like Pierot Lunaire and have created midi files for it [the idea was that Sprechstimme is probably as close to actual singing as I could get now], but this is dense and square like blocks of wood. I feel my idea that opera is a chick flick is validated by this.

Schoenberg's Moses und Aron


Yesterday I was listening to the radio and the subject was poetry. The speaker was discussing the great American poets of the nineteenth century: Poe, Longfellow, Dickinson and Whitman. He and I had the same thought: where are the great poets of the twentieth century? What happened?

In the twentieth century poetry like music became a high art. It was no longer admirable to be comprehensible by the masses. Obscurity became a requirement.

Incomprehensibility is a sign of decadence. [My words--not his.] Great poetry like great music comes from the general love for poetry. The great works are merely the peaks of a generally popular art. The great American operas of the twentieth century are Porgy and Bess and West Side Story, the works of popular composers working in their native styles.


I rather liked the chapter on Berlioz in Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation. Berlioz could not play the piano, so it was necessary to discuss something else. I was fascinated with the discussion about how everyone at the Paris Conservatory studied The Well Tempered Clavier, and Berlioz didn't. They studied species counterpoint, while Berlioz played the guitar. As a result he didn't automatically think about voice leading.

Berlioz was aware of the opposing concepts of expectation and emotion. He varied the phrase lengths effectively because he knew of the underlying expectation of regular phrases. The classical period effectively created a set of expectations that the romantics manipulated for effect. Berlioz was key in this.

He tried to explain why Berlioz wasn't incompetent, but his heart wasn't really in it. He said if you do something three times, it becomes truth. I think if what you are doing is physics, this isn't enough, but if it's music, I think it is.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Eating Crow

I just love this technical talk and could do it endlessly. In the low pitches the tension in the vocal cords is very low and some singers find it difficult to achieve very much intensity in that part of their voices. This can provide a reason to move to a higher Fach. This is a personal decision.

Now that we are hearing Placido Domingo occasionally sing baritone, we can see why he would want to switch to tenor. His voice is just a lot more interesting up there.

We may well think that Cecilia Bartoli is a soprano, but we might have a hard time coming up with a reason why she should reclassify. When I was obsessing over this subject all those years ago, I was worrying about her, that she might do herself harm. My impression today is that she takes very good care of her voice and there is no cause for concern. There may never have been.

This is the most soprano I have ever heard Cecilia. I think it's this one: Salieri: La Fiera di Venezia - Vi sono sposa e amante. Judge for yourself. As a soprano she would have a much different, much more orthodox singing career.

As it is she sings whatever she wants, no matter how high or low, almost without reference to Fach, and makes millions. Who are we, who am I to second guess this?


Monday, October 22, 2007

Top 25 Chick Flicks

Remember I said opera is a chick flick. Here are 25 to choose from.

1. Morocco (1930)
In top hat and tails as Amy Jolly, Marlene Dietrich has never been more worldly than when she seduces men and women alike with her act at a nightclub in Mogador—and never more womanly than when she casts aside her cool for the love of Gary Cooper's foreign legionnaire Tom Brown. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper.

2. Camille (1936)
[Already used, I'm afraid. This is La Traviata.] Greta Garbo is so exquisite she can seem unearthly on-screen, but here she's heartbreakingly human as Alexandre Dumas's famously fragile courtesan Marguerite Gauthier/Camille who finds love too late. The tragic heroine must sacrifice her own happiness in order to prove her love. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Greta Garbo & Robert Taylor. Based on the book Camille by Alexandre Dumas.

3. Notorious (1946)
[You could definitely make an opera out of this.] This postwar thriller is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most woman-loving movies. Ingrid Bergman, a beautiful woman with a tainted past, penetrates a Nazi cabal in post-war Rio de Janeiro by marrying its leader—in an act of heroism and despair after she's spurned by the man she adores, Devlin (Cary Grant), an American government agent too puritanical to let his love for her bloom. Her espionage work becomes life-threatening after she marries the most debonair of the Nazi ring, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Only Devlin can rescue her, but to do so he must face his role in her desperate situation and acknowledge that he's loved her all along. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman.

4. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
Two actors have an adulterous affair while making a movie about a rule-breaking 19th-century romance in this brilliant investigation of passion and risk in different eras. Sarah Woodruff/Anna (Meryl Streep), ostracized by Victorian society and abandoned by her French lieutenant lover, fascinates Charles Smithson/Mike (Jeremy Irons) who resolves to unravel the mystery of her clandestine past. Directed by Karel Reisz. Starring Meryl Streep & Jeremy Irons. Based on the book The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. [Flashback might be hard in an opera.]

5. The English Patient (1996)
During World War II, a mysterious stranger Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is rescued from a fiery plane crash. The American allies (Juliette Binoche) care for him and the dangerous secrets from his past come to light. Like the excellent novel it so skillfully adapts, this intensely romantic film, about a relationship between Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiennes, makes you feel the urgency of its wartime confrontation with love and death. Directed by Anthony Minghella. Best Picture award winner. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, & Kristin Scott Thomas. Based on the book The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. [Love and death--the definition of opera.]

6. The Women (1939)
The film's tagline: "The stars! The clothes! The cruelty! The catfights!" A politically incorrect film that plays like a cross between a guilty pleasure and a cautionary tale. Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) loses her husband to ruthless Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) who is aided and abetted by Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) whose own spouse has taken up with another woman. In Reno, in the throes of divorce, all wage war on one another. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, & Rosalind Russell. Based on the play The Women by Clare Booth Luce.

7. Julia (1977)
On the eve of World War II, a well-off American writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) risks her safety for a beloved girlhood friend in Europe Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) who has become a resistance fighter. The chemistry between Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave lights up this gripping film about the kind of friendship that enlarges one's life. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Jr., Maximilian Schell.

8. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
An impish comedy about a bored suburban housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) who follows a series of personal ads in a New York paper and ends up in the orbit of a true wild woman named Susan (Madonna). Pop diva Madonna makes her celebrated screen debut in this smash hit as the elusive and oddly engaging renegade on the lam from a host of enemies and admirers. Directed by Susan Seidelman. Starring Rosanna Arquette & Madonna. [I love this movie. The opera would be a comedy, of course.]

9. The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996)
When a handsome fellow named Brian (Ben Chaplin) falls for the wit of Abby (Janeane Garofalo), a romantically challenged radio host with low self-esteem, she persuades the gorgeous bimbo next door Noelle (Uma Thurman), her model friend, to impersonate her and date him in her name. True love finds a way, but the heart of the movie is what these unlikely friends give each other: a sense of self-worth. Directed by Michael Lehmann. Starring Uma Thurman & Janeane Garofalo.

10. Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)
Female friendship has never been funnier or more endearing than in this deliciously silly screwball comedy featuring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow as ditzy pals. Highlights: their roadside fight about who's more popular, their claim to have invented the Post-it, and the unexpectedly tender line "Wanna fold scarves?" Both get into a lot of trouble when they go to their high school reunion and lie about their lives after twelfth grade. Directed by David Mirkin. Starring Mira Sorvino & Lisa Kudrow. [Also a comedy. How many modern operas are comedies? Think about this?]

11. The Hours (2002)
Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep play three women of different eras who say no to the unbearable, each in her own eloquent way. Taking place over one day, all three stories are interconnected with the novel: one is writing it, one is reading it, and one is living it. The movie taps an intimacy so deep—and deeply female—that to watch it is to feel both acknowledged and consoled. In 1923, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is starting to write her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, under the care of doctors and family. In 1951 in suburban Los Angeles, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is planning for her husband's birthday, but is preoccupied with reading Woolf's novel. And in 2001, Clarrisa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is planning an award party for her friend Richard Brown (Ed Harris), an author dying of AIDS. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, & Meryl Streep. Based on the book The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

12. All About Eve (1950)
A young Marilyn Monroe appears briefly in this sharp-toothed comedy about women and ambition. But the real action involves ingénue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) snapping at the tail of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). From the moment she glimpses her idol at the stage door, Eve moves relentlessly towards her goal: taking the reins of power from the great actress. The cunning Eve maneuvers her way into Margo's Broadway role, becomes a sensation and even causes turmoil in the lives of Margo's director boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). Only a cynical drama critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) sees through Eve, admiring her audacity and perfect pattern of deceit. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. Based on the short story Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr. [Why hasn't anyone done an opera of this? It screams for an opera.]

13. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
This is a classic Martin Scorsese film - his first Hollywood studio production. The film tells about a newly widowed Southwest wife and mother named Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) awakening to her right to life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Left to care for her 11-year-old bratty son Tommy (Alfred Lutter), she heads for California after a disastrous encounter with new beau Ben (Harvey Keitel), but is delayed in Phoenix where she takes a waitress job and falls for rancher David (Kris Kristofferson). Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Ellen Burstyn & Kris Kristofferson. [Singing waiters.]

14. Aliens (1986)
Star of the original Alien (1979), Sigourney Weaver turns this and Alien3 (1992), the second and third installments in the wildly successful science fiction horror quartet, into wrenching dramas of the difficult choices in women's lives. Her homeless cosmonaut Lieutenant Ripley is one of the great movie heroines of all time. Ripley is recovering from her encounter with the deadly alien when she is asked to go back with a company of marines. At first the marines refuse to believe her warning, but soon they all come face to face with the awesome creatures. Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sigourney Weaver. [Science fiction opera. Are there any?]

15. Thelma & Louise (1991)
As friends who take an impulsive break from the men in their lives, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis embrace the fierce American motto "Live free or die" and kick women's movies up to a whole new level. Two friends, one an unhappy housewife named Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), the other a wise-cracking waitress named Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), decide to take a vacation from their lives, but things soon get out of control after an attempted rape incident at a roadside café. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis. [They could leap off a parapet like Tosca.]

16. What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
Great performances by Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner make this showbiz biopic a triumphant portrait of a submissive battered wife who not only manages to break free of her abusive Svengali but proceeds to rebuild her soul from the ground up. The turbulent relationship of Ike and Tina Turner eventually forces Tina to leave and find the courage to believe in herself. Directed by Brian Gibson. Starring Angela Bassett & Laurence Fishburne. Based on the book I, Tina by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder. [This would be a perfect subject for an opera.]

17. Girlfight (2000)
With her mother dead, partly as a result of her father's abuse, Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is always fighting, whether at home in the housing projects, with her abusive dad, or at high school. She finds a new outlet for her anger at her brother's boxing gym. With hard-core training from veteran boxing coach Hector (Jaime Tirelli), Diana learns she has the guts and talent to be a contender. Unexpectedly, she also finds love in Karyn Kusama's award-winning movie about anger and power and release and resolution. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Michelle Rodriguez. [Boxing? Maybe not.]

18. Black Narcissus (1947)
Majesty gives way to mystery, and marks a harrowing descent into madness, when a young British nun is ordered to establish a convent on a cliffside in the remote Himalayan mountains. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a serious young novitiate assigned to lead the crucial mission, with the reluctant recommendation of her Mother Superior. Together with a disparate group of nuns, Sister Clodagh will face strange peoples and customs, including a demented sex-crazed nun named Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a handsome British government agent named Mr. Dean (David Farrar) who often strides around half-naked, and Indian girl Kanchi's (Jean Simmons) naughty Nepalese beauty. A harsh and unforgiving climate and a wrenching struggle with Sister Clodagh's own past will prove the ultimate test of her devotion and faith in this deliriously enjoyable melodrama. Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Starring Deborah Kerr. Based on the book Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. [I see the word "demented." This might work.]

19. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This charming Ernst Lubitsch comedy stars Jimmy Stewart as quiet unassuming, and hard-working gift-shop clerk Alfred Kralik, and Margaret Sullavan as new co-worker Klara Novak in pre-WWII Europe -- both employees of a shop owned by the demanding yet endearing Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). They squabble at work while pseudonymously falling in love by letter. The Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks remake, You've Got Mail (1998), has its moments, but the melancholy grace of the original is matchless. As the letters turn towards the subject of love, not even Kralik's constant bickering with Klara can tarnish his newfound happiness. But when he's suddenly and inexplicably fired, all of his romantic aspirations crumble. Until, that is, he discovers the identity of his secret friend. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Margaret Sullavan & James Stewart. [Too static, I think.]

20. The Lady Eve (1941)
"A moonlit deck is a woman's business office," Barbara Stanwyck's deliciously shady lady Jean Harrington coos to her latest mark Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a wide-eyed, rich, priggish herpetologist who is heir to a brewery fortune. She and her conniving father "Colonel" Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn) attempt to bamboozle Pike at a cruise ship card table. When the heir gets wise to her gold-digging ways, she must plot to re-conquer his heart. The most savory pleasure of this great screwball comedy is watching her teach him a little lesson about presuming to sit in judgment of a woman with a past. Directed by Preston Sturges. Starring Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda.

21. Born Yesterday (1950)
Corrupt millionaire junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), embarrassed by his girlfriend Billie Dawn's (Judy Holliday) lack of social sophistication, arranges to have her trained by Paul Verrell (William Holden) in a crash course in class and culture. He is surprised and outraged when, after becoming aware of her role as a pawn in his crooked business deals, she refuses to cooperate. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Judy Holliday & William Holden. Based on the play Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin.

22. Pat and Mike (1952)
A female college physical education instructor, Pat Pemberton (Katharine Hepburn), becomes an athlete of enormous promise in the worlds of both tennis and golf. She is pursued by a shady and unscrupulous sports promoter named Mike Conovan (Spencer Tracy), who hopes to make her famous and make some money in the process. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn.

23. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is an eccentric New York City playgirl with a next-door neighbor, an aspiring writer named Paul Varjak (George Peppard). He is "sponsored" by a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal) in 2-E. Guessing who's the right man for Holly is easy. Seeing just how that romance blossoms is one of the enduring delights of this comedy. Complications arise, however, when Holly's former husband Doc (Buddy Epsen) arrives on the scene and remembers her as Lula Mae Barnes. Directed by Blake Edwards. Starring Audrey Hepburn & George Peppard. Based on the book Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. [Is there already an opera of this?]

24. Bull Durham (1988)
A classic American romantic comedy about a very minor minor-league team and three of its current constituents: an aging baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) that beds one player each season, a cocky foolish new pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), and the older, weary Minor Leaguer catcher named Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) brought in to wise up the rookie playing for the Durham Bulls. Directed by Ron Shelton. Starring Kevin Costner & Susan Sarandon.

25. Pretty Woman (1990)
When successful corporate mogul Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) meets independent and carefree hooker Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) in Beverly Hills, their two lives are worlds apart. But Vivian's energetic spirit challenges Edward's no-nonsense, business-minded approach to life, sparking an immediate attraction. A modern-day fairy tale. Directed by Garry Marshall. Starring Richard Gere & Julia Roberts.

Dr. B. This is just to show how people looking for opera plots are looking in the wrong places. History! Bah, humbug.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Strauss Lieder

I have long been a fan of Strauss' Lieder, preferring Jessye Norman for these. They came to me by way of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and are known also in the voice of Renée Fleming. Part of the purpose of this blog--remember it has primarily an inner agenda--is to open up my soul to new insights, new approaches to familiar music as well as the unfamiliar.

So here they are with Jonas Kaufmann, a heldentenor, IMHO. [I can never remember acronyms, but find this one funny.] The sound of his voice is heavenly, and his renditions of these songs come to me as from above. A man singing Strauss. He never becomes sentimental or precious like many a soprano. They are transformed in his voice. I find this recording very beautiful.

In his forties he will become a great Wagnerian. He should begin with Siegmund.


Before I leave this subject forever--no promises--I must say this is the best Bartoli ever. She is simply magnificent.

Friday, October 19, 2007


It feels like an obsession, especially the parts where Cecilia projects herself into scenes of Malibran. Perhaps I should feel less self-conscious about my own obsessions.

The music that comes down to us from the past has all been passed through a filter--the filter of "good taste." Certain composers and compositions pass the filtering and vast numbers of others are found unworthy and do not. As a result, we come to the music of any era with no idea of what music was heard then. We hear only the mountain peaks and never the foothills or lower ranges.

Cecilia has been trying to single-handedly change all that. She brings us the other Gluck, the one who wasn't reforming anything. She brings us Mozart and his purported enemy, Salieri. She brings operas by Porpora and Haydn. I confess I had never heard any of these works before Cecilia recorded them.

Now she is bringing us an entire era: 1825-36, the world of Maria Malibran. This world is marvelously international and includes both mountains and foothills. Everything she researched did not make the cut of the album. The English song was excluded, but will show up on the concert series. Rossini, Malibran's mentor, is completely unrepresented on the album. It is my understanding that the concert series will include the Malibran version of the aria from La Cenerentola.

The variety of what is included is astounding. We get expert yodeling done in a style to rival Bartoli's other virtuosic singing. We get flamenco. We get full scale Bellini arias in the Malibran versions. We get Mendelssohn. It feels like a whole world.

The whole world was mad for Malibran. She was Madonna, far bigger than any opera star today.

Cecilia has decided to live out her fantasy and recreate the art of Maria Malibran. This is biting off a very big chunk.

She begins with scholarship, finding the music that most closely represents what Malibran actually sang. She recreates the instrumentation of the era--Malibran was just before the major reconstruction of instruments that took place in the nineteenth century.

Bartoli is recreating herself, too. Who but she would even try this? The first thing you're going to notice is the extreme range. Even in her contralto period Cecilia did not growl around in the low range of her voice like this. The most vivid example of this is in the Hummel variations. The other end of her voice is well represented as well.

It is good for Cecilia to have taken on this challenge. She is the sort of artist who needs challenges. She has taken on the recreation of another era and the art of one of the most famous singers of all time. The result is not Malibran, of course, but Bartoli. Long may she reign.


In the booklet for Maria is this sentence: "So the term mezzo-soprano does not necessarily define the range of a voice, but rather its quality and colour." It is neither of these. Classification is based on tessitura, the preponderance of the notes within the range. Malibran transposed or pieces, entire operas were transposed down for her to put them into the proper tessitura for her voice. She could still add extensions at either end to show off her considerable range. Classification is more for comfort than for sound.

Cecilia Bartoli herself has done the best job ever of convincing us that she may actually be a mezzo after all. Or at least has become one in her maturity. In bringing us history's most famous mezzo in the keys and arrangements designed for her Bartoli shows us how well the pieces fit into and show off her own amazing voice.

But this reminds me of a conversation I had the other day with an old friend from college. In those days we had both studied with Julia who was a tyrant in the studio. We both felt that Julia had misclassified us. Julia would make up her mind quickly and then force the voice into the niche she had chosen. She chose for me to be a contralto and pushed my technique into a low larynx position, removing all intensity from my voice and possibly all high notes as well. My friend said she is a coloratura soprano while Julia thought she was a lyric. We also shared stories about Julia's taste for comparing her students unfavorably to people she liked better.

We talked about Cecilia and how I had become a fanatical follower. We discussed her interpretive freedom. My friend pointed out that we would not have been allowed to do anything like that by our teachers. Julia in particular saw interpretive independence as a personal insult. This is a matter of great importance. Cecilia has been allowed to be herself as few others are.

I'm going to quote myself: "The big event of the general rehearsal [of La Cenerentola in Zurich] happened when you [Cecilia] conducted the conductor, one Adam Fischer, at the beginning of the scene where Cinderella returns home after the ball. It all happened very fast. You were sitting playing solitaire, the music started, and suddenly you were glaring fiercely into the pit with those incredible eyes, making sharp rhythmic pulses with your right hand. Tempo? There are only three chords to set the tempo before Angiolina begins to sing. The orchestra instantly followed you. Was this a long-running disagreement, perhaps, and this your last chance to correct it? Herr Fischer turned to the audience and made apologetic gestures, but I don't think he liked it. I have never seen a singer do this or anything remotely like it. Normally the conductor is God. I admit I felt envy." Clearly there were no hard feelings, since the same Adam Fischer is the conductor on Maria.

Cecilia is not a heavy mezzo, and no attempt has been made to push her voice into that heavy mezzo sound. The fad for heavy technique came after Malibran. If everyone sings in the same relatively light technique, as was the case through Rossini and Bellini, classification is much less important than it became when Verdi and Wagner came on the scene.

The issue of classification becomes critical when trying to create a heavy mezzo like Dolora Zajick or Elīna Garanča. It is the point in history when some voices are given a very heavy technique that classification becomes such a huge issue. The heavier voices can develop more gradually than the lighter ones.

My friend and I also agreed that everyone should sing Mozart. "Mozart is medicine." I was advised by one of my teachers never to sing Mozart. The mind boggles. Perhaps we should all be less eager to classify and categorize young singers. Cecilia herself may be the living proof of this.

We also talked about how much more opportunity for young singers there is now than when we were young. There are Santa Fe and Glimmerglass for two things.

Classification by tessitura explains why Anna Netrebko is a soprano. Classification by color does not.

So it seems we are still arguing. I think she has always wanted to argue with me, at times fiercely, and I have found this confusing and frightening. I continue to insist that we must meet first, argue second.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Other recordings

I have been buying a lot of CD's lately, including Dawn Upshaw's Canteloube: Chants d'Auvergne. This is a collection of folk songs from Auvergne, a region in central France with its own dialect, called Auvergnat. Cantaloube's songs are in this dialect, though the liner notes show only French and English. This makes it more difficult to match the singing with the translation.

Joseph Cantaloube is known primarily for these songs which were composed over a long period from 1923 to 1955. The orchestral accompaniment seems to answer the question, "What if these songs were in a movie?" We're hearing post-impressionism. Alternate question, "If these songs were a movie, what would the plot be?"

Dawn Upshaw's main talent is her ability to bring a sense of ecstasy into unusual music, a talent strongly in evidence here. It's not a new recording.

I also bought:
Elīna Garanča Aria Cantilena
Angela Gheorghiu Live from La Scala
Measha Bruggergosman Surprise
Vivica Genaux Handel & Hasse Opera Arias
Netrebko and Villazon duets
Natalie Dessay French Opera Arias
Lotte Lenya Kurt Weill
Matthias Goerne Schumann

In the mail is Jonas Kaufmann's Strauss Lieder. I'll let you know if I think of anything to say about them.

Florez' Arias for Rubini is out in Europe, but I can't find it here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cecilia's Maria

It is the utter flawlessness of her sense of rhythm that contrasts her with all others. It doesn't seem to matter what the music is, it will be fascinating and completely her own. The flexibility of the phrasing here is amazing even for her.

She is my siren, and I cannot resist her call. This is the Cecilia my heart has yearned for. Her voice is now fully mature, and she uses it with astounding self-confidence, reaching every possible note, soaring and growling. There is new depth and warmth in her voice, new colors of great beauty. I think I'll just curl up and purr for a while.

I am going to attempt to review Cecilia Bartoli's new album Maria, which is possible as long as impartiality is not required. She is proposing nothing less than revolution. She is telling us that people following in the footsteps of Callas when performing bel canto are doing it wrong. She makes some good points.

This is Cecilia meeting Callas in heaven.

In the liner notes she points out that Malibran sang "Adina [L'elisir d'amore] and Leonore [Fidelio?], Amina [Bellini's La sonnambula] as well as Romeo [I Capuleti e i Montecchi?], and in the same opera, both Semiramide and Arsace [Rossini's Semiramide], Desdemona and even Otello [Rossini's Otello]." This strongly implies a different vocal technique from present day standards. The heavier the technique the more differentiated the classifications. Malibran must have used a lighter technique, a technique very much like Cecilia Bartoli's.

Cecilia is seducing us with the lightness of early instruments and the lightness of her technique to like a much more flexible and enticing style of singing. She wants nothing less than the opera world to follow her.

The phrasing is sinuous as nothing I've ever heard. Will she succeed?

There is a credit for the yodeling teacher, Nadia Raess.

There is also a very nice photo of Cecilia and Christopher Raeburn together honoring his 50th year with Decca. I would guess it was probably him she did it for. I'll take it anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Modern operas

Sometimes I find blogging a tedious activity. I am bored with my constant tirade about the failure of contemporary composers to write singable music for their operas. Often they don't even seem to give a shit.

The way to formulate the idea correctly in your mind is to try to imagine a young up and coming soprano launching her career from your opera. Janacek can do it. Can you? If there is no big female role for her, then dump your libretto and pick something else.

It's difficult to find good bits from modern operas on YouTube. There isn't much to choose from. There is nothing from Saint Francis except a couple of rehearsal films, nothing from Devils of Loudun, no Henze to speak of.

My opinion of John Adams as an opera composer comes from "I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung", one of my personal favorites. It actually seems to be an opera aria, even a da capo aria, and is one of the most fabulous arias in all modern opera. I would accept more writing along these lines.

Listening to "Magic" from Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire I have to wonder why I always trash it. I think it was the lack of dramatic tension on the stage that bothered me. He seems to be at least trying to write an aria.

Here is a bit from Appomattox. It's fun Philip Glass if you pay no attention to the singing. I think his best are Einstein (for which you need to bring your sleeping bag) and Satyagraha. Both are in his trance inducing minimalist style and might require one of those necklaces for sleeping on airplanes. I did enjoy Orphée.

This is an excerpt from Osvaldo Golijov's St. Mark Passion by the people I heard in London. It gives you a flavor. I am totally turned on to this and hope he comes up with something this good for the Met. Dear Mr. Golijov, please give us something completely wild and don't be intimidated by the Met.

Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a popular favorite. I've seen a couple of different productions of this and it's very sexy. The subtitles are in Hungarian. The singing here is impressive. One can imagine a Russian soprano becoming famous singing this. Here is more:

Opera is a story setting for opera singers. Quit worrying about the significance of the subject matter. No one cares what the opera is about. They care about how it makes them feel. How about a Princess Diana opera? Or a Mary Todd Lincoln opera? Make her the whole story and give her a lot of arias and a full scale mad scene. She was quite bonkers, or so I understand.

Opera is like a chick flick. How about An Affair to Remember as an opera?

The Romantic Generation

Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation is based on a series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, and I can't help thinking how much more interesting it would be as a lecture series. Or perhaps an audio book. The content is densely intertwined with the musical examples that fill the book and expand it to 700 pages. When they come from Lieder cycles that I know, I understand the points he is making. When they come from his vast knowledge of piano repertoire, I feel myself left behind. This probably means something dire about my level of musicianship, but without a keyboard to at least try them out, I am missing a lot of what he has to say. For me music exists largely in my ears, I'm afraid. I'd like to hear the examples.

So if it is just words, the words don't seem to explain enough. How can I hope to understand Liszt's contribution to the development of piano sonority without hearing the examples played on a piano. If it's only for pianists who can play them themselves, I think I need advanced warning.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Jonas Kaufmann

I couldn't find it at the store, so I listened to the bits on Amazon of Jonas Kaufmann's Strauss Lieder album. This is simply gorgeous. Others have commented that they hear baritone, but for my ears his voice is maturing into a true Heldentenor. I'll have to order a copy.


Appomattox Court House in Virginia is the site of the surrender on April 9, 1865, of General Robert E. Lee, shown right, to General Ulysses S. Grant to begin the end of the American Civil War. Philip Glass has written an opera about it called Appomattox.

Presented at the San Francisco Opera, there are moments in this opera of great effectiveness. The opera begins and ends with scenes by the wives of the great male participants. At the beginning they are sure this war will be the last, while at the end they are sure that there will be more wars. People want to think that if a war is vastly horrible, as was our Civil War where more Americans died than in all of our other wars combined, then surely no others will follow. These ensembles were well done.

There was another moment when the Confederates decide to abandon Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capitol, by blowing up most of the assets. The scene shows crowds of refugees and huge explosions where the actors stare in amazement and sing "aah."

In the battle scenes the Civil War song "Tenting on the old campground" is heard in its entirety.

There is another moment where Robert E. Lee is shown dressing for the occasion of his surrender. He was a southern gentleman whose house in Arlington, Virginia, is now the site of a national cemetery, the one where John Kennedy is buried. Early in the opera Mrs. Lee complains that she can no longer walk in the gardens of her house. Grant was no gentleman, and the contrast between the two men is itself an illustration of the culture clash the war was based on.

There is a famous picture of the room where the signing took place. More vivid in memory will be the scene that takes place in the opera after the signing: all the furniture is stolen and the building is completely demolished.

Into this simple story political events outside the time line are inserted in a kind of random way, especially in the second act. The assassination of Lincoln is anticipated and shown.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties is shown. The war ended but didn't end in the hearts of southerners. If they couldn't own blacks, they would make sure their lives were miserable and degrading. Edgar Ray Killen appears in a wheel chair and describes the murder of three civil rights workers. I remembered that this referred to the murders of two white jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and one black man, James Chaney, but in the context of the opera it was just a morbid illustration of southern cruelty that couldn't be precisely identified.

And how was it as an opera? It was theatrically effective, at least for an American audience, and never became tedious. It was my second Glass opera in 6 weeks, so I couldn't help comparing them. Orphée achieved moments of great lyricism, moments of beautiful singing, indeed moments that seemed to require singing to make their proper effect. There were no such moments in Appomattox. I retain my prejudice: opera is about singing. I am there to hear people singing. I felt sorry for Dwayne Croft, a fine baritone who looked wonderful in his dignified portrayal of Robert E. Lee, but croaked miserably through the ugly vocal part composed for him. Every note seemed completely thankless. Perhaps Lee should have been a bass. Or perhaps it should have been written with the idea that someone would be singing it.

The best work came from Adler fellows. The picture on the left is Noah Stewart, excellent in the role of T. Morris Chester, a black journalist during the Civil War. I have been following him since I saw his performance of Don Jose in Davis. He is a lovely tall tenor that I have wanted to add to my sexiest list. I lack only an appropriate picture. I was previously worried that his voice might be too light, but I see from his work here that he has plenty of power.

This picture is of Kendall Gladen, formerly seen as Carmen and playing Elizabeth Keckley here, and Heidi Melton as Mrs. Lincoln. Heidi is a dramatic soprano of very great potential. In San Francisco people already know her name. Rhoslyn Jones as Mrs. Grant and Elza van den Heever as Mrs. Lee were also fine.

Whenever Glass loses interest in his material, he fills in with the noodle noodle music he is famous for. It's a complete cop out. The writing for voice was bad to ghastly.

Is this a relevant comment? You tell me. I am pondering the fact that all the white characters were portrayed by white singers, and all the black characters were played by black singers. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but perhaps not. Is that really necessary? I think the Civil War still lives.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Franz Liszt was a man who found his gimmick. There were other piano prodigies before him, like Hummel and Liszt's teacher Czerny, but none created the frenzy that followed Liszt in his youth. In 1847, toward the end of the period covered in The Romantic Generation, he stopped touring and settled down to a regular job in Weimar.

And what was his gimmick? He could take common popular pieces of the era, such as operas, and decorate and transform them with dazzling, almost impossible ornamentation. This was his wow factor. You can imagine the audiences going mad over this. This gimmick required him to dazzle while continuing to remind the audience of the original material. He was more fabulous than three tenors all in one.

In the Transcendental Etudes he applied this fabulous ornamentation technique, a technique that was based entirely in the art of improvisation, to his own youthful etude compositions. He could do it with anything any time he wanted. Eventually he could not resist it and applied it to everything his eyes fell on. Occasionally he would write one of his improvisations down and call it a composition. He was completely undeterred by crassness or bad taste.

Charles Rosen does not manage to say anything this straight forward. He is a pianist and writes like a pianist talks. I remember them. They were the only people who sat during their coffee breaks and obsessed over the minutia of piano technique. I have in all my life never heard two singers get together and do this. Except maybe tenors talking about their cover technique.

When played by a pianist of sufficient technique, it is fun to listen to Liszt's piano pieces. I have personally never heard such a pianist. Usually you feel that it would be fun if only.... It would have been interesting to hear Rachmaninov play Liszt. [My friend Jean says that indeed, it was.]

Rosen is trying to assess Liszt in the way he would (and does) assess Chopin and cannot. Liszt did not have the fabulous originality and compositional creativity of Chopin, but Liszt had something else that I wish Rosen would talk a lot more about. Liszt is the creator of the orchestral tone poem, the bridge to Wagner.

Liszt is monumental for his influence, for his desire to create large forms only tenuously related to the sonata form, for his success in tweaking the imagination of another more gifted in actually composing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Two great comics together. I don't know what that thing is she's holding.

Announcer asks Ustinov if he makes automobile noises. He says he needs to know what kind of car it is, and Cecilia puts in that she now drives a cinque cento, a comically small Italian car. And off they go. Ustinov says that first you must know if the battery is good.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Conductor Donald Runnicles
Production: Paul Brown

Venus Petra Lang
Tannhäuser Peter Seiffert
Landgraf Hermann Eric Halfvarson
Walther von der Vogelweide Stefan Margita
Wolfram von Eschinbach: James Rutherford
Elisabeth Petra Maria Schnitzer

I went to see Tannhäuser at the San Francisco Opera yesterday afternoon. I sat in the front row of the balcony right by one of the new projection screens that hang down from the ceiling up there. I found that I looked at it and ignored the stage far below. I am pondering if this is a good thing. It was quite nice to watch the conductor during the overture.

I think it is primarily the religious kitsch that has always bothered me about Wagner. My favorites have always been Walküre and Meistersinger--one is myth and the other isn't religious at all. The kitschiest by far are Tannhäuser and Parsifal. I guess I have grown up enough to laugh at a world view that includes both the virgin Mary and the goddess Venus.

Tannhäuser, or Heinrich as he is called here, has achieved the ultimate fantasy and is having an affair with the goddess Venus. All this endless love making is starting to get on his nerves, and he wants to go back to his ordinary life.

Both of his women, Venus and Elisabeth, like him for his singing. k d lang once said that she became a singer because it was a great way to get laid. This may explain why the devoted Elisabeth, beautifully sung by Petra Maria Schnitzer, ignores the available Wolfram for the better singer Heinrich.

Wagner was an intuitive dramatist who recognized when the story required a musical gesture. He provides a beautiful male chorus for the returning penitents. The most beautiful musical gesture comes when Elisabeth has died (in this production she is strangled by Wolfram after she begs him to kill her) and Wolfram sings the beautiful aria "O du mein holder Abendstern," sung magnificently here by James Rutherford. He knew where to put an aria and he knew how to write one. "Evening star, greet an angel who now passes by." It is one of the great moments in opera.

I'm not sure Heinrich is worth saving, but the saintly Elisabeth intercedes on high, and he is saved. Perhaps God also likes a good singer.

The production was also filled with theatrical gestures. The single set is a large room (box set) with large windows along both sides and a dirt floor with a tree growing in the middle. The first theatrical gesture came when Heinrich, Peter Seiffert, first tells Venus, Petra Lang, he wishes to leave her. They are immediately surrounded by a ring of fire.

My problems with religious kitsch and the woman as angel/whore plot were very successfully overcome by the wonderful and restrained conducting of Donald Runnicles and the uniformly high quality of the singing. It was a treat.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


And who are these people I am supposed to be following?

Measha Brueggergosman whose Deutsche Grammophon recording is now out. Notice how her dress hides her feet.

Erin Wall who has a web site "coming soon" here. Sorry, that's hurricane Erin. Meanwhile, hear her on MySpace.

Tracie Luck who appeared recently in New York in Margaret Garner.

Jonas Kaufmann who can be seen here. He just won the award from Gramophone magazine for best vocal album for a Strauss Lieder recording. I'll have to look into this. He's just been signed by Decca.

Vivica Genaux seen here as Jackie Kennedy in Semele. It's the pillbox hat that gives it away, the one in the assassination photos. Doing it in pink would have been bad taste.

That's a few anyway. This is not an official list.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Belated award

I try not to get bogged down in gender bias, so at this time there is a new, though belated, nominee for sexiest in drag: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Platée. It is surely his subtlety and Frenchness that made this entire opera work.

Sexiest in Drag

I was looking for pictures of Vesselina Kasarova and found these lovely ones. The sexiest in drag category definitely needs her. Behind her is Anja Harteros.

This is Alcina.

And this is Orphée et Eurydice.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


So much for my opinion. Apparently the understudy in Chicago was hot. According to Playbill: "Another Star Is Born: Elaine Alvarez, Gheorghiu's Understudy, Triumphs in Chicago Bohème" Here is her MySpace page with singing.

Now that would actually be a good reason to fire Angela. What if the person who actually shows up for the rehearsals turns out to be fabulous? Perhaps I should add Elaine Alvarez to my list of people I follow. One does love a fairy tale ending.

If she is serious about her career, she needs to go immediately and have herself photographed. Find a photographer who specializes in sexy photos, and get him to shoot you. This advice applies to everyone. Only the biggest stars have enough sexy pictures to go around, and often even they don't. The usual "I am a serious opera singer" shot that looks like it came from your high school annual simply will not do any more.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


From a comment on YouTube attached to Victoria's performance of "Mi chiamano Mimi":

"Elisabeth Schwarzkopf wrote, when she saw [Victoria] de los Angeles debut at Covent Garden as Mimi in 1950, that she cried, because of de los Angeles perfection in the part and because she realised she would never reach such levels in the role and withdrew it from her repertoire."

Elisabeth achieved immortality by carefully selecting the roles she portrayed. She focused on those roles in which she achieved perfection, those roles in which she was the greatest of her era, and it was not many.

I think this is a useful model only for those who aspire to greatness, as she certainly did. Know thyself.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


See lots of pics of Netrebko here.

And how about this? Concerto for Coloratura Soprano (op. 82, 1943) by Glière. It's absolutely peachy.


In the chapter called Formal Interlude Charles Rosen discusses harmony and phrase lengths. The writing in The Romantic Generation is very dense all the way through. The large number of examples makes it go a little faster.

I keep wishing the examples included some of the analysis bars from Emotion and Meaning in Music. This would make them easier to understand. You must do your own analyzing.

Tonality arose in the Baroque as a superimposition onto counterpoint. Counterpoint didn't change--just the chords added harmonic significance to the traditional voice leading. The chords changed about every beat or so and were an added feature rather than a new perspective.

In the Classical period it was noticed that changing the chords a lot less often made tonality the principle organizing idea. It's a case of less is more. Fewer chords that change less often means stronger key centers. Changing to another key became a big event. Rosen points out that the main modulations of Mozart and Beethoven are to the dominant, subdominant and relative major keys. If you don't know what this means, you are definitely not ready to read this book.

The Romantics start modulating to the mediant and submediant. Instead of modulating to keys that are a fourth or fifth away, they often modulate to keys that are a major or minor third up (mediant) or a major or minor third down (submediant). There are lots of examples. They are bored with constantly strengthening the key centers with tonic and dominant and drift off into weakening them with less powerful key schemes.

Then he worries over the four bar phrase for a while. He praises the regular phrase, saying it helps group material into larger units. Irregular phrases distract you from the larger picture.

I find that I am happy reading this material when I am somewhat familiar with the examples. I don't have a piano. He is now setting off into three large chapters on Chopin. We'll see.